If beauty lies in the eye of the beholder then a rewarding sense of pleasure also comes to hand when holding or using an artfully crafted object. A new exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art shows that such works of art are more readily available than many of us might think.
Collab: Four Decades of Giving charts the ongoing efforts by a group of Philadelphia-area designers to promote the ideals and practice of modern and contemporary design. Collab: The Modern and Contemporary Design Group at the Philadelphia Museum of Art was founded in 1971 by Evan Turner, then director of the museum, and Cynthia Drayton, a noted interior designer. Since then, the members of Collab have been working to collect, display and encourage the creation of outstanding designs in both unique artisan pieces and mass-produced objects.
The ideal that the things of everyday use may also be works of art was the motivation for William Morris and other proponents of the Arts and Craft Movement during the late 1800’s. “The treasures in our museums now,” Morris wrote of the medieval craft tradition, “are only the common utensils used in households of that age.”
But the 19th century obsession with reviving handcrafted examples from the applied arts is only part of the story. If the credo of the Wierner Werkstatte were true – “Better to work 10 days on one product than to manufacture 10 products in one day.” – then the material world would be a very select and ultimately impoverished realm.
The Collab exhibition enables students of art to view outstanding examples of 20th and 21st century design in the space of one museum gallery. All of the 48 objects and 5 posters on display were donated to the Philadelphia Museum of Art by Collab or purchased with funds provided by the group.
Fittingly, the exhibit begins in pre-World War I Vienna, epicenter of the creative ferment of the early 1900’s that produced Sigmund Freud’s revolution in psychology, Gustav Mahler’s controversial symphonies and the rebellious art movement known as the Vienna Secession.
One of the founders of the Vienna Secession, Josef Hoffmann designed a chair in 1907 that is the first object on view. His strikingly modern design, utilizing curving back supports and sturdy, unadorned legs, did away with the ponderous weight and over-decorated motifs of much of 19th century furniture. Since Hoffman’s chairs were placed on the dizzying checkerboard floor of the barroom of Vienna’s Cabaret Fledermaus, it was a design that showed brilliantly how design can balance the competing dictates of physical environment.
The design revolution sparked by the radical austerity of Hoffman and other early 20th century designers is exemplified by the MR-20 armchair and accompanying stool. A signature work by one of the greatest designers of the 20th century, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the MR-20 is significant for several reasons, not least of which is the fact that the example on view was the first donation by Collab, back in 1978, given in memory of architect Roland Gallimore, an early chairman of the group.
The MR 20 was constructed of chrome-plated tubular steel, with lacquered caning for the seat and back. The emphasis on curving legs and arm rests of the MR 20 recalls the curves in the back supports in Hoffman’s design. There were also more recent designers to whom Mies van der Rohe was indebted. The use of tubular steel during the 1920’s was pioneered by a French designer, Charlotte Perriand, and more famously by Marcel Lajos Breuer from Hungary. The striking cantilever design came from a 1926 prototype by Mart Stam, from Holland, who shared his plans with Mies van der Rohe. Modern design is a truly collaborative enterprise, international in scope. That too is another of the significant features of the MR 20 and indeed of the Collab exhibition in general.
The simplicity of the lines of Hoffman’s Cabaret Fledermaus chair and the MR 20 was carried on by other works during the first decades of the 20th century. These include the “Ball” Wall Clock, designed by George Nelson in 1947, and Alvar Aalto’s birch and plywood Armchair, dating to the early 1930’s. Making a virtue of simplicity, both of these outstanding pieces show that times of adversity such as the Great Depression and World War II can foster creativity of the highest order.
Utility was a key theme for George Nelson, a true Connecticut Yankee, born in 1908. As an architect, he displayed a genius for organization, his “storage wall” and ‘family room” concepts eventually occupying an almost sacred place in the Mid-Century American home.
The signature “Ball” Wall Clock also hearkened to the ideal of usability. Individually, the component balls, spokes and hour hand look like mismatched discards from a scrap heap. Put them together as an integrated unit and you have a masterpiece. And in doing so, you have a vivid testimonial to Nelson’s famous 1965 evocation of “junk” as the “crowning glory” of modern consumer culture, “the symbol as clear a statement as the pyramids, the Parthenon, the cathedrals … the rusty, lovely, brilliant symbol of the dying years of your time. Junk is your ultimate landscape.”
Alvar Aalto’s Armchair occupies a wholly different place in the story of modern design, fusing utility with unity of materials. The Finnish-born Aalto was one of the pioneers of Scandinavian design. Aalto initially used tubular steel for the legs of the first of a series of cantilever chairs, the F35 from 1930. Then, a year later, Aalto switched to bent laminated birch wood for the legs, with bent lacquered plywood for the seat and back of his revolutionary Model No. 31. This beautiful chair presents a fluid, almost “waterfall,” effect in the downward slope of the thin sheet of dark, lacquered plywood. Aalto’s Armchair, on display in the Collab exhibit, dates from the same years, and is a sturdier, if somewhat less graceful, version of the Model No 31.
Aalto’s cantilever chairs were displayed to great acclaim at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. That year, the world returned to global conflict. World War II was to make many and lasting effects on the process of designing and producing furnishings that would carry on into the post-war years.
For Charles and Ray Eames, the war years would cement a working partnership that would make them household names in Mid-Century America. This husband and wife design team worked for the U.S. Navy to create splints and stretchers to ease the pain of wounded servicemen. They experimented to find ways of bending plywood in a variety of complex shapes. After the war, they continued with this venture and their Folding Screen, designed in 1946, shows one of the more rewarding side-effects of the war. Constructed of molded ash plywood, Folding Screen replicates the ripples and undulations of cloth to an amazing degree.
Also on view is another testament to the Eames’ vast talent as designers. This is the Eames’ Rocking Chair designed in 1950-53, although the ideas underlying the molded fiberglass seat date to Charles Eames’ partnership with Eero Saarinen. In 1940, Eames and Saarinen, an American-born designer of Finnish descent, collaborated on a single-piece compound-molded plywood seat which they entered in the “Organic Design in Home Furnishings” competition at the Museum of Modern Art. The seat reappeared in fiberglass in the 1950s, riding atop a fragile-looking metal rod and birch sled base that might have been welded and screwed together on a garage work bench. It was officially known as the RAR (Rocking Armchair Rod). This bizarre-looking hybrid made a fleeting appearance on House, an NBC television show hosted by Arlene Francis in 1956. A very bashful Charles and Ray Eames introduced their Eames Lounge Chair on the program, a truly iconic design which made the RAR look more like a product of the combined genius of Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton on The Honeymooners.
A sense of humor, as well as of style, can be of considerable value in designing furniture and artifacts that will be enjoyed as well as utilized by the public. That is readily apparent in the Ginza Robot Cabinet, designed in 1982 by Masanori Umeda for Memphis Milano, an Italian firm. Judging from the appreciative reaction among gallery goers at the Collab exhibit, Umeda’s playful reprise of images from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and other films and comic books testifies to the importance of finding mirth and fun in the objects we use.
Yet, it needs to be emphasized that in the hands of a truly talented designer joy can be imparted to objects without belaboring the point. An overt emphasis on a particular theme, the use of appliqué images, deliberate and very unsubtle demonstrations of technique can be impediments to the articulation of modern design, of works that are usable as well as impressive.
For the Italian designer, Joe Colombo, that was never a problem. The Collab exhibit presents several of his creations, including the wheeled Boby Storage Trolley. With swing-out drawer trays to help keep office space organized and clutter-free, the Boby Trolley is more of a functional machine than the Ginza Robot. Colombo, a dapper, pipe-smoking visionary, was at the height of his powers during the 1960’s. Italy’s postwar Renaissance was in full-flower and every design that he produced bore the unmistakable touch of creative genius. Colombo’s laminated wood Armchair, designed in 1964, combined a comfortable movie seat persona with intricate, interlocking components. Armchair had the additional virtue of not screaming “60’s” as do so many of the creations from the “Mod” Decade.
Colombo died tragically young, aged 41, in 1971. It was a major loss for the international design community. Around the same time, another talented Italian designer, Ettore Sottsass, whose brilliant work for the Olivetti Company included the Valentine Typewriter, designed in 1969, became disenchanted with the commercial world. It was Sottsass, in 1981, who founded Memphis, the company which marketed Umeda’s Ginza Robot Cabinet. Sottsass stated that he named his company after listening to Bob Dylan’s song, “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again.” During the 1970’s and 80’s, with so much of 60’s idealism fading away, it was perhaps understandable that Sottsass and others concentrated on making “statements” with radical displays of color and shape, at the expense of utility.
Many of the later works on display in the Collab exhibit reveal this continuing and troubling trend. The chairs on display from the last decades of the 20th century and the first years of the 21st seem designed to discourage people from sitting on them. Both the Honey-Pop Chair, from 2000, with an alarmingly protruding ridge on its seat, or the appropriately named Antibodi Chaise, designed in 2006 by Patricia Urquiola, are definitely objects to be admired from a distance.
When the most you can say about furniture is “beautiful to look at but don’t try and sit on it,” then the ideals of Alvar Aalto or Charles Eames can be said to be at risk, if not actually endangered. To be fair, there are those who say that Mies van der Rohe’s MR 20 was easier on the eye than on human physiology. And several of the concluding works on display, the iMac computer, 1998, and the Erika Kitchen, 2004, a complete kitchen ensemble that was the brainchild of Storno, a German design group, maintain the traditions of utility and pleasing appearance.
With all of these signature works on display in close proximity, it is difficult to approach the final display of the Collab exhibition without looking back over one’s shoulder. However, any troubling thoughts about the future of design were anticipated by a brilliantly imaginative stroke. A large question mark literally occupies the last display space. Instead of putting together a final summation of “design as it stands now,” Collab is inviting visitors to the exhibition to help select the next work to be donated to the Philadelphia Museum Art for inclusion in its collection. The web page devoted to the Collab exhibition provides four chair designs from which to choose. The design that receives the most votes by September 1, 2011 will be installed in the exhibition, a fitting way to celebrate Collab’s 40th anniversary.
That question mark will go and a new chapter in Collab’s history and in the ever-evolving story of modern design will begin.
Click here to cast your vote for the work of art to be donated to the Philadelphia Museum of Art to mark the 40th anniversary of Collab.
Collab: Four Decades of Giving Modern and Contemporary Design appears at the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Perelman Building, May 21, 2011 through winter 2012.
Ed Voves is a freelance writer, based in Philadelphia, where he lives with his wife, the artist Anne Lloyd, and a swarm of cats who love curling up with good books.
Mr. Voves graduated with a B.A. in History from LaSalle University in 1976 and a Masters in Information Science from Drexel University in 1989. After teaching for several years with the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, he worked in the news research department for “The Philadelphia Inquirer” and the “Philadelphia Daily News,” 1985 to 2003. It was with the “Daily News,” that he began his freelance writing, doing book reviews and author interviews with such notable figures as Umberto Eco, Maurice Sendak, and Peter O’Toole. For the “Inquirer,” he specialized in reviews of major historical works. Following his time with the newspapers, he worked as an independent researcher for Knowledge@Wharton, the online journal of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. He joined the staff of the Free Library of Philadelphia in 2005 and is currently the branch manager of the Kingsessing Branch in southwest Philadelphia. In 2006, he began writing for the “California Literary Review.” History of Yoga